The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?

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